The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.


Tom Shales

August 2006 Archives

Trust Bob: He Hopes You Won't Want to Miss Katie

August 31, 2006 8:16 PM

Katie Couric made an early but awkward bow as the new anchor of “The CBS Evening News” Thursday night, wafting in to salute departing anchor Bob Schieffer, who has held the job for a year and a half.

Schieffer promo’d the tribute to himself at the opening of the newscast. Then just before the last commercial break, he told viewers—with a peculiar undertone of hesitancy—“trust me, you won’t want to miss—I hope you won’t want to miss—our special guest” in the final segment.

“Trust me, I hope you won’t want to miss”? What kind of a ringing endorsement is that? But Couric flashed her telegenic smile when she materialized after the commercial to host the tribute to Schieffer, who was ushered out as if he’d been the anchor for the past century (and looks as though he could have been). Referring to the “60 Minutes” scandal that led to the premature departure of Dan Rather as “a dark chapter” in the history of CBS News, Couric implicitly endorsed management’s official version: The whole thing was Rather’s fault.

He’s the one they’ve decided to put on the spit and roast unto eternity.

It was said Rather “stepped down” following the scandal as if he were somehow accepting blame. But Schieffer, in Couric’s sparkling eyes, remains a virtual Saint Bob: “I can’t imagine following in the footsteps of a kinder, more gracious person.” Yechy goo! Schieffer choked up at the very end as Couric tippy-toed off into the wings and a crowd of employees, executives and Schieffer’s family surrounded and applauded him.

In one especially clumsy moment, CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus started to give Schieffer a hug, but Schieffer sort of shooed him away; McManus took a step backward and the hug was aborted. Schieffer promised viewers they’ll see a “new state-of-the-art newsroom” when they tune in for Couric’s anchor debut next Tuesday; maybe he meant to say, “Trust me, I hope it’s state-of-the-art.”

Conan's Star Turn

August 29, 2006 6:23 PM

Conan O'Brien did such a tremendous job of turning the Emmy Awards into an actual entertaining television show Sunday night, why not name him permanent host of the show, the way Bob Hope and then Johnny Carson were for the Oscars ("permanent" being of course relative in telespeak). Jeff Ross, Conan's executive producer, says he's not sure Conan would even want the gig if asked. "It's a ton of work," he told me from New York, where "Late Night" is taping three shows in two days and then taking a few days off. "We must have spent four months working on that thing."

The ratings were not great, but of course they weren't: NBC stupidly and stubbornly insisted it air in August so as not to disrupt the Sunday-night football schedule, and churlish old ABC, in a snit because "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" weren't nominated, put a Johnny Depp "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie up against the Emmycast, a very ungracious thing to do. Conan, who last hosted in 2002, did do better in the Nielsens than the 2004 awards, which kicked off the TV season and aired in September, not August.

The hilarious "cold open" that had Conan romping from the set of one show to another was shot over a few weeks and of course completed long before Sunday, but some viewers complained about the sequence because it opened with Conan going down in a plane crash, and there'd been a real plane crash, with 49 dead, earlier that day in Kentucky. Ross absolutely positively did not want to comment on the controversy, but it seems like one that will blow over quickly. The sequence could have undergone last-minute editing, but that would have screwed up the continuity and could have had a ripple effect on the timing of the show, which actually came in at a mere three hours for a change.

O'Brien couldn't be reached as he was busy entertaining the hell out of his studio audience. He'll be taking over "The Tonight Show" in a few years according to the timetable that Jay Leno himself helped set up. The happy day can't come too soon ....

The Fate of Conan's Emmycast Is in the Mel

August 26, 2006 3:55 AM

With Conan O’Brien at the wheel, Sunday night’s Emmy Awards ought to at least be a merry old show, a wild ride. Comedy is in Conan’s DNA.

There’s one way he could disappoint: by turning chicken and shying away from jokes about drunk driver and anti-Semite-about-town Mel Gibson. The Gibson incident is still hot in the public consciousness, famous to some and sickeningly infamous to others, and the drunken, egomaniacal actor has hardly paid a stiff price for his public offense: making anti-Semitic remarks to cops attempting to arrest him for DUI.

Traffic cops, I happen to know from personal experience, are – to put it as gently and humanely as possible – the mud-sucking scum of the earth. It’s hard to sink lower. But Mel Gibson managed it. His anti-Semitic obscenities were not only crude and cruel, they were absurd non-sequiturs, unless Gibson somehow thinks Jews were responsible for his being drunk and receiving a citation.

The notion that Jews have started most of the wars in history – as Gibson ranted to the arresting officer – is idiotic on its own, but what does it have to do with being ticketed for drunken driving in the first place?

Of course boozers are not known for their logical prowess. Isn’t it interesting, though, that this is what springs to the surface when Gibson gets ticked off? Right away, “The Jews.” Imagine if his sicko/psycho “religious” movie about Jesus had failed rather than succeeded at the box office. Whose fault would that be? Why of course: "The Jews!"

I once heard that the ruling class of a small Scandinavian country having economic troubles decided to blame them on “the Jews,” even though a census discovered there wasn’t a single Jew within the country’s borders.

A very wise Washingtonian named Frank Mankiewicz taught me an important semantical distinction many years ago (and he’s anything but anti-Semantical). Talking about “Jews” may be harmless, Mankiewicz said, “but when I hear references to ‘The Jews,’ I start to get uncomfortable.” Whether Gibson said “Jews” or “The Jews” in the course of his deranged tirade, we know where his sympathies lay. This minimally talented actor, whose roles in movies often have creepy Christ-like overtones (at the end of one he’s tied shirtless to a ceiling pipe, then beaten and flogged by the modern-day equivalent of Roman soldiers), has something in his DNA, too, but it ain’t wit.

One could argue that making jokes about the incident trivializes it, but once the 11 o’clock news is over, virtually everything is fair game for satirists and gagsters, and the Emmy special gets a special dispensation where topical jokes are concerned. Jay Leno, unfortunately, revealed a nasty streak of his own when the topic came up on “The Tonight Show” soon after it occurred. Leno apparently thought “the Jews” should be the brunt of jokes, not a movie superstar like Mel Gibson nor the mal de Mel from which he suffers. The joke was something about how long it would take “the Jews” to forgive Mel Gibson for his remarks to a Malibu traffic cop. That’s right: Gibson makes a fool of himself, and Leno thinks the laugh is on Jews.

That’s not all. Leno also managed to slip in a description of Gibson as being a “nice guy” – yes, just your typical “nice guy” zillionaire who hates Jews! – perhaps as part of an effort to lure Gibson onto Leno’s show so he could make his “official” national apology, however half-hearted, there. Leno’s ratings got a big boost a few years back when Hugh Grant, a stammering actor, came on to explain about picking up a hooker on the Sunset Strip, or wherever.

Conan, funniest of all late-night comics – funnier even than reigning monarch David Letterman – please don’t wimp out during the Emmy show. Remember how Letterman suffered after hosting the Academy Awards, not just because he ran that Oprah-Uma thing into the ground but, some Hollywood phonies said later, he’d been too “irreverent” joking about a then-recent Jack Nicholson encounter with traffic cops. It seems Jack lost his temper and started pounding on the hood of a nearby Mercedes with one of his golf clubs. Dave went too far when he ridiculed Nicholson, or so a few Hollywood dignitaries later complained.

First of all, there is no such thing as a Hollywood dignitary. How can there be dignitaries where there is no dignity? Grace Kelly became Hollywood Royalty, but she had to leave the sleazy place to qualify. “Hollywood dignitary.” Ha ha, that’s rich, as Bugs Bunny would say (Bugs had dignity, yes, but that’s a hair shy of actually being a dignitary).

Gibson has demonstrated what you find when you scratch the surface of too many Hollywood stars: ignorance, snobbery, nastiness, racism, and a bilious green slime that substitutes for blood. Conan’s no Hollywood geek; he’s a New York freak. He represents the city of glorious diversity, where racism is impractical because everybody’s bumping elbows, shoulders and beer bellies. Gibson may make an appearance at the Emmy Awards, a bit of self-conscious noblesse oblige gesture on his part, but more likely it will be announced that surprise, surprise, he’s going to pop up on Leno’s show sometime next week. The two ignorant dopes can pool their resources and try to come up with a genuine, articulate, coherent and grammatically respectable sentence.

That means a sentence with no racism in it – which won’t be easy for these two. Unless Mel’s next picture is going to be “Christ’s Wounds – A Closer Look,” or some other sure-fire rabble-rouser, he’d better give it a try. He doesn’t have to mean it – the apology, or the statement abhorring racism, or whatever – he just has to do a good job of faking it.

Will Katie Have Legs?

August 23, 2006 4:22 PM

That “tick tick tick” heard in the hallways at CBS News isn’t the “60 Minutes” clock—or Walter Cronkite’s pacemaker. It’s the Countdown to Katie, suspenseful buildup to the monumental moment on Tuesday, Sept. 5, when Katie Couric takes over the “CBS Evening News.”

And what are people saying? What are they talking about?

They’re wondering if she’s going to wear slacks. They’re asking if her legs are going to show. They’re even debating whether the anchor desk will be made of plexiglass so that we can all play peekaboo through it. “Nobody asked those kinds of questions when Brokaw started doing ‘Nightly News,’” says Steve Friedman, the über producer who reinvented the “Today” show and now runs morning television for CBS News. “Nobody asked what Charlie Gibson was going to wear when he took over the Peter Jennings show on ABC.”

And lest one think this is a clear-cut case of shameful sexism at the old-boy networks, let it be noted that women are making much of the catty chatter. The old grump of a TV critic who fixated on her legs was of the female, not male, persuasion. There’s so much emphasis on appearance, you’d almost think Katie had been recruited from amongst the bouncy babes at the Playboy mansion. Are people forgetting what she proved in all those years at “Today”? That she’s bright, quick, assertive, intelligent and hugely personable? And not easily intimidated?

“It’s 22 minutes of reading news; how hard can it be?” scoffs a producer at another network. What’s hard, of course, is getting the audience at home to prefer the way you read the 22 minutes of news to the way Charlie Gibson at ABC and Brian Williams at NBC do it. To Katie’s benefit, even though Gibson and Williams both run first-rate newscasts, neither has exactly lit a raging bonfire in Nielsen’s computer. Katie—I mean, Couric—will be the one clear distinctive choice.

Neither Gibson nor Williams looms as large as did Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings or David Brinkley. In time, they might. But the playing field as the race begins is remarkably even. And for better or worse, Katie’s the one whom the paparazzi will be waiting to spot on her way back from lunch. She’s instantly the biggest star among the three network anchors.

Friedman says he drops by on Fridays to see how the new set is coming along. “It’s being finished up this week,” he says, but he doesn’t exactly paint a vivid mind-picture of how it will look. Is Katie going to be perched on a chair behind a big wooden credenza as Rather was? “I would doubt very much that she would spend every minute of every broadcast sitting behind a desk,” says Friedman, sounding as though he knows more than he’s telling.

One of the genuinely curious facts about Couric, for all the gibes she endures about being Rebecca of Sunnybrook News, is that she is notorious within the business for having high negative Q’s. Her Q ratings are high, but her negative Q’s are whoppers, a seeming contradiction that baffles many an old pro.

Friedman dismisses the so-called negative Q’s. If Couric has them, he says, they didn’t keep her from beating Q’s-through-the-roof Diane Sawyer on every day of every week they went up against each other in the morning. They didn’t keep her from clobbering Harry Smith and his harem on CBS either.

And Couric is already an old hand at handing Gibson his hat. So no matter what she wears, no matter whether she sits behind a desk or lounges on a chaise, no matter how perky or cute or lovely-legged Couric is alleged to be, from here it looks like Gibson and Williams have a lot more to worry about than she does. Tick tick tickety tick tick…..

The Prophesy of Chayefsky’s ‘Network’

August 21, 2006 2:11 AM

Paddy Chayefsky, who thrived during TV’s “golden age” of live drama, didn’t claim to be predicting the future when he wrote “Network” in 1976 – but the movie, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, may be the most prophetic ever made. It was set in “the present” – network anchorman Howard Beale is fired on Sept. 22, 1975, as the film opens – but Chayefsky took prevailing trends and extended them to outrageous extremes that now, unfortunately, don’t seem all that extreme or outrageous.

Like the fact that a fourth network called UBS is acquired by a giant global conglomerate, CCA, whose executives are determined to turn the network’s curiously prestigious news division into a profit center. They order Beale’s firing and thereby push him over the edge into madness – madness that turns out to be such a crowd-pleaser that Faye Dunaway, resplendently cold-blooded as the head of the entertainment division, gets Beale a prime-time news hour to rant and rave.

It’s a reality show, a couple decades ahead of its time, replete with footage shot by media-wise domestic terrorists, one of them a Patty Hearst figure played by Walter Cronkite’s daughter Kathy (yes, really).

Beale’s news hour is only a tad trashier than NBC’s lurid “Dateline,” with its sideshow cast of alleged child molesters, or those awful murder mystery editions of “48 Hours” on CBS. Among other ironies: Beale, as part of his breakdown, uses a common barnyard epithet, the first half of which is “bull,” on the air, causing a sensation. Robert Duvall, as the ruthless new UBS president, scoffs, “The FCC can’t do anything except rap our knuckles.” Chayefsky couldn’t know that during reactionary Dark Ages to come, the FCC could indeed do more – like fine UBS $50 million or more for the utterance of that one word, even though ad-libbed by a lunatic.

“It’s not satire, it’s sheer reportage,” director Sidney Lumet says on the 30th anniversary two-disc DVD of “Network,” which includes a clip of Chayefsky himself on Dinah Shore’s old talk show. In defense of the film’s dark satirical stance, Chayefsky tells Shore, “It’s murderous, but it’s not brutal.”

Chayefsky contributed two iconic phrases to the language that survive three decades later: Beale’s rabble-rouser “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more,” which in a thrilling sequence New Yorkers shout from their apartment-house windows; and “Because you’re on television, dummy,” which Beale hears first from a voice in a dream and later from Ned Beatty as the CCA megaboss. There are no more nations, states, or political theologies, Beatty tells Beale; there are only corporations that grow larger and larger in size, fewer and fewer in number. My, what an imagination that Chayefsky guy had.

The movie got 10 Oscar nominations and scored four wins. The best actor Oscar so deservedly won by Peter Finch for playing Beale had to be awarded posthumously; he died not long after the film was released. “Network” was meant to be a comedy, but it grows less funny – though more entertaining – each time an anniversary rolls around.

I tried to get an interview with Chayefsky at the time – his office number was listed in the New York phone book and he answered the phone himself – and though he declined, we chatted for about half an hour. Asked why he got out of television, he told me he grew weary of a business in which “you have to be hysterical all the time.” Anger and outrage became him, and wherever he is now, I seriously doubt he is “resting in peace.”

As for “Network,” it’s fantastic, it’s bombastic, it’s Comcastic! And its shelf life seems unlimited.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills will screen “Network” Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $3 for members and $5 for nonmembers.